Category: Uncategorized

Building Shame Resilience (2018). AIPC Article Library. Retrieved July 25, 2021 from https://www.aipc.net.au/articles/building-shame-resilience-in-clients/Building Shame Resilience (2018). AIPC Article Library. Retrieved July 25, 2021 from https://www.aipc.net.au/articles/building-shame-resilience-in-clients/

Jungian analysts have called it the “swampland of the soul”. Other psychotherapy writers have observed how it originally served to keep us safe; the tendency to shame has been a universal one in which our desire to hide our flaws from others has saved us from being kicked out of the group (the society), which evolutionarily would have meant death (Sholl, 2013). So which is it? Is shame totally pathological, or is it ever helpful to us? And how shall we deal with it in the therapy session, especially when we are faced with a highly self-critical or otherwise shame-prone client?

In a recent blog post we defined shame and provided examples of it, differentiating it from similar emotions. In this follow-up article, we identify the signs and symptoms that a client is experiencing shame, review the dynamics and states of mind relevant to it, and explore ways to build shame resilience – a capacity to deal with potentially shame-triggering incidents – in clients.

How you can identify it in the therapy room

First, let’s make sure that you are, indeed, able to spot this elusive and dark emotion. As we noted in the earlier piece, the salient characteristic of shame is that, paradoxically, it is hidden. People can experience a deep-seated shame for years that even close associates do not recognise. So how, on perhaps only a few minutes of therapeutic association, do we? The first complication of many on this topic is that shame is ubiquitous in the therapy room. This is true for three reasons: (1) nearly all clients will be experiencing some form of it; (2) clients are also likely to feel shamed merely because of the stigma associated with seeking mental health help; and (3) finally, we as therapists must acknowledge that we have our own places of shame, which in the exchange of transferences that is psychotherapy, inevitably manifest in our interactions with clients.

Physical and emotional symptoms of shame

Dearing and Tangney (2011), in drawing together the threads of multiple master clinicians’ observations on the topic, noted that therapists consistently commented on the physical and/or emotional withdrawal of clients experiencing shame. This could be seen in decreased eye contact, slumped or rigid posture, avoidance of “here and now” material, freezing, stammering, tightened voice, self-deprecating comments possibly expanding into hilarious monologues, and a micro-flash of irritation before apology for missing a session or failing to do an assigned homework. Downcast eyes, squirming in the seat, laughter covering embarrassment, and indications that a topic is somehow degrading were all nominated as signs of shame. Some therapists noted that their shamed clients tended to go blank; manifest submissive, crouched body postures; avoid topics (as in talking “around” them); become anxious or angry; or directly refuse to divulge relevant clinical material (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

The “hidden” demonstrations of shame

As obvious as the above signs would seem to be, a common observation is that shame is easily overlooked in the therapy room. It is an emotion that clients wish to hide because they feel ashamed of having shame, and we as therapists may collude with that, partly because of our own areas of felt shame. Beyond that, though, client shame is frequently disguised by other emotions: anger and rage, envy, contempt, and expressions of grandiosity, as clients “wear” several subtypes of narcissism in order to hide their vulnerable, shamed self. Paralinguistic cues can include confusion of thought, hesitation, soft speech, mumbling, silence, long pauses, rapid speech, or tensely laughed words. Therapists not trained to recognise it can easily miss these many, more hidden, faces of shame (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Shame-related states of mind in session

When in a typical shameful state of mind, an individual has a sense of an exposed, vulnerable, devalued self being scrutinised and found wanting in the eyes of a devaluing other. Acute shame may be experienced as an overwhelming pang of secret discomfort associated with communication that explicitly or implicitly conveys themes of inferiority. Extremely shame-prone clients suffer from persistent, oppressive appraisal processes in which all interactions (including those with you in session) are rigidly assessed in accord with the degree of perceived criticism, judgment, or humiliation experienced. This has been likened to a computer application program which, whether running inconspicuously in the background or more saliently in the foreground, is nevertheless always present at any given moment, never completely disengaged. It can be triggered into the foreground (primary operation) by myriad interpersonal events or by internal processes such as memories, fantasies, and reactions to internal states of arousal, such as sexual excitement, rage, or even exhibitionistic urges (Zaslav, 1998).

The defences a client chooses to engage as a result of the shame may vary widely. Narcissistic clients, for example, may ward off shameful schemas about self through grandiose, inflated self-regard in the (imagined) presence of an admiring audience. But upon perceiving a lack of sufficient support or attention from the psychotherapist, the same narcissist may experience other shame-related states, such as painful emptiness or of being a “nothing”. Volatile expressions of anger can result for shame-prone clients experiencing bitter, resentful feelings of being unappreciated or even humiliated; these the client may perceive as “self-righteous rage”. Others defend against shame through paranoid states in which others are seen as tormenting or accusing the self. For still other clients, envious states or episodes of blaming self or others manifest. How can you as therapist discern these states of mind? Zaslav (1998) suggests that psychotherapists are apt to enter complementary states of mind in which shame-related themes dominate. Thus, tapping into your own feelings in the moment will provide important clues to the client’s state of mind. Note that the client may present their guilty self (guilt being an often adaptive emotion in which we experience doing something bad rather than being bad), but a shamed self is not likely to appear directly, as clients go to frantic lengths to avoid experiencing it; by its nature, it is hidden even from the client (Zaslav, 1998).

Finally, upon entering a shameful state, many clients experience a transient inability to think, referred to as “cognitive shock” (Zaslav, 1998). Thus, while a psychotherapy session may work well for guilt, which can be expressed, processed, and expiated, the sense of vulnerability and exposure that goes with shame is almost always accompanied by a direct avoidance of communication about it, and this is compounded by states including disruptive imagery, cognitive disorganisation, and emotional dysregulation (Zaslav, 1998). All of this can trigger behaviour which conflicts with any prosocial, adaptive functions of shame (such as helping an individual to find his or her place in society), and instead leads the person to cut empathic ties to others.

Shame is rich in transferences

Along with all of this comes the challenge that shame – especially because it is so difficult for people to confront directly in themselves – is often repressed and thus projected outward, to the therapist and others. Much has been written about this aspect which is beyond the scope of this article, but note that, given the painful split between the devalued self and a devaluing other, defensive operations within the client are likely to result in the shame experience being projected onto or into the therapist (in projection and projective identification, respectively). This means that you as therapist may be made to feel about yourself as the client feels about him/herself. How do you know this is happening? Again, the information is located conveniently in your own body/emotions, when you begin to notice shifts in your own self-evaluation. You become, in essence, the “spokesperson” for the client’s poor self-esteem. The client may project inadequacy onto you, systematically and unconsciously undermining and devaluing your efforts, until you begin to doubt your own adequacy as a therapist. Feelings of weakness or deficiency are common in shame-based projections. Similarly, the client may reveal contemptuous or devaluing attitudes toward the therapist that can be linked in treatment to a disowned weak or defective self superimposed upon the psychotherapist. If this happens to you and you are able to tolerate the projections openly – without corresponding shameful retreat, you provide a powerful message to the client that it is safe to examine his or her internalisation of a devalued, incompetent self (Zaslav, 1998).

Finally, we note that a different form of transference/countertransference can occur when the client unconsciously pressures you as therapist to accept a disapproving stance toward him/her. In this case you function as a spokesperson for the client’s self-contempt. Once you understand this, it is easier to maintain a supportive stance, while encouraging exploration of those self-critical attitudes that the client generally puts onto him/herself (Zaslav, 1998).

Enhancing shame resilience in the therapy room

Dearing and Tangney (2011) integrate their master clinicians’ suggestions for how to work with shame in the therapy room through a framework with four aspects: accessing and acknowledging shame, relational validation, shame regulation, and transformation of shame. We look through that framework into suggestions we have unearthed for building shame resilience.

Accessing and acknowledging shame

Numerous authors make the point that shame draws much of its power from the shadows; when we bring it into the light of shared discussion, we disempower it. The saying is apt here that emotions (and shame is one of the darkest and most intense of emotions) are like breathing: they only cause trouble when obstructed (Sack, 2015). Thus, getting beyond shame means being able to share experiences of shame with trusted others. It means exposure to shame. We have emphasised throughout this article and the earlier one that people acting from shame-based instincts uniformly want to avoid looking at it, let alone talking about it. But deal with it they must; exposure to it can be like the graded exposure techniques used with individuals experiencing panic attacks and other forms of anxiety: first a little exposure to it, then gradually increasing amounts (LeJeune, 2016).

It is useful for clients to be able to recognise their triggers. Shame is sneaky; it attacks us where we are most vulnerable, or in other words, our insecurities “prime” us to feel shame in particular areas. The aspiring writer with the freshly-minted novel is more apt to feel shamed when someone points out how compelling another novelist is than when comments are made about someone else’s car. The overweight person who hears how beautiful another (very slender) person is may take that as a hint that he or she should lose the excess weight. Research suggests that a chief shame trigger for women is physical appearance, whereas for men it is the fear of being perceived as weak (Sack, 2015).

In therapy, the mere process of naming shame helps to differentiate it from similar emotions (such as humiliation, guilt, or embarrassment) and also can help the client to normalise it (i.e., pointing out that it is a universal human experience; we all have it at one time or another). The point is to “titrate the dose” of shame-naming so that the client is not overwhelmed, but confronts it little by little as he or she is ready to accept it. As this process occurs, the client comes to see that few, if any, experiences warrant the global “smearing” of the whole personality with the tar-brush that created the global negative self-attributions. Rather, in the logical light of day, most genuine flaws, setbacks, and transgressions are limited to particular areas – and the client can either resolve them or choose to view them more kindly (Dearing & Tangney, 2011; LeJeune, 2016).

Relational validation

Talking about the shame, as above – or rather, being heard around it – is a form of relational validation as well as a way of accessing shame. Empathy is the antidote to shame, so receiving it when telling a shame-generating story can help dissolve it. Especially because of the hidden nature of shame, we can tend to feel isolated in it. Authentic sharing – with vulnerability, to someone who responds empathetically – can build the therapeutic alliance in a therapy session, or strengthen a relationship outside of it. Yes, it can be anxiety-inducing to do this with high shame. As a therapist, note that many psychotherapy writers suggest that you actually use the term “shame”, but you may wish to wait until some relationship is built before using that word (Sholl, 2013; Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Shame regulation

Along these lines, whatever you can do to help build self-compassion in the client makes it easier for the person to self-soothe, self-validate and regulate the shame. Thus, not only your words, but the timbre, pacing, and tone of your voice – how you say what you say – may influence clients cued to experience threat or disapproval. LeJeune’s research (2016) suggests that even engendering a sense of physical warmth in the therapy room (via a cup of tea, a blanket, or a cosy office) may induce a client to greater compassion for self and therefore greater capacity to self-regulate the shame.

Certainly, psychoeducation and guiding clients in experiences of loving-kindness (Metta) meditation and practices of mindful non-judgment are shown to positively impact a whole host of difficulties related to shame. One technique is to locate where the sensation of shame manifests in the body; let’s say it’s in the pit of the client’s stomach. The client then places a hand over that area (or alternatively, over the heart) and directs comforting, affirming energy to that part of the body. When a client has enhanced self-compassion, it makes it easier to be vulnerable and engage the world from a place of worthiness, thus regulating shame, so it is a full feedback loop (Sholl, 2013).
Tied to helping the client regulate his or her shame is the capacity in us as therapists to be able to recognise and then normalise our own places of shame. Let us say this strongly: it is normal to feel shame as a therapist! We spoke before about shame being put onto or into us by the client via projection or projective identification. Beyond that, we are human, too, and may experience shame from previous experiences completely unrelated to the client. LeJeune’s Number One scientifically-based recommendation for dealing with shame is to “Love your own self-doubt; it makes you a better therapist” (2016). At least, being aware of our own shame and learning about it can help us to model self-compassion and eventual shame regulation for our clients (LeJeune, 2016; Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Transformation of shame

Finally, we come to the question of how we can change a problematic emotional experience – that of shame – into a more adaptive, empowering, and meaningful emotion that can serve as a resource. One powerful way is to transform shame into guilt. We have differentiated between shame (“I am bad”) and guilt (“I have done something bad”). If we are inherently wrong or bad, there is no hope. But if we have done something wrong, we have the opportunity to make reparation: to apologise, to compensate, to redress whatever wrong we have somehow done. Sometimes it is only necessary to educate clients as to the difference between “being bad” and “doing bad”. Some forms of treatment already support this transformation. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, encourages members to separate character flaws from their core selves (Step 4) and make amends for what they have done wrong during their addictions (Steps 8 and 9), thus moving from shame to guilt. Taking this step is at least implicit, if not explicit, in therapies such as CBT and REBT. Many success-oriented therapies, such as narrative therapy and solution-focused therapy, ask clients to look for exceptions, so shame-based perfectionists have the opportunity to challenge excessively high standards and others’ evaluations of the self.

In some cases, such as with sexual abuse, the client had no responsibility for the shame-engendering experience and so the therapeutic goal is not the change of focus from shame to guilt. Rather, it is about appropriately externalising the blame back onto the abuser: putting where it belongs. As such clients construct new meaning for long-standing wounds, their shame may shift to anger or sadness. These emotions can be growth-producing in that they point to adaptive actions appropriate to the situation: for example, reaching out to connect to others in sadness and using anger to assert one’s right to life one’s own life without shame (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Summary

Much can be written about this intensely painful, complex, and often misunderstood topic of shame. In this article we have looked into how you can identify it in your therapy room, what the typical shame-related states of mind tend to be, and the kinds of transferences that typically pop up in session. We have suggested a four-component framework for treating it which includes accessing and acknowledging it, deepening relational validation, helping the client to regulate the shame, and eventually transforming the shame into other, more adaptive emotions. Paradoxically, the ultimate arbiter of your effectiveness in dealing with client shame is your willingness to be with your own shame.

References

  • Dearing, R.L., & Tangney, J.P., Eds. (2011). Working with shame in the therapy hour: Summary and integration. Shame in the therapy hour. Washington, D.C.: APA Books.
  • LeJeune, J. (2016). 20 science-based recommendations for therapy with highly self-critical or shame-prone clients. ACT with compassion. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Sack, D. (2015). 5 ways to silence shame. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Sholl, J. (2013). Shutting shame down. Experience Life. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Zaslav, M. R. (1998). Shame-related states of mind in psychotherapy. J Psychother Pract Res. 1998 Spring; 7(2), 154-166.

AIPC (2021). Busting Common Myths About Anger. Issue 355 // Institute Inbrief. Retrieved June 17, 2021.AIPC (2021). Busting Common Myths About Anger. Issue 355 // Institute Inbrief. Retrieved June 17, 2021.

All human beings experience anger at least occasionally. It’s a natural emotion helping us recognise that we or someone or something we care about has been violated or treated badly. When we feel threatened or our goals are thwarted, anger is a coping mechanism that enables us to act decisively, especially in situations where there is little time to reason things out. It can motivate problem-solving, goal-achievement, and the removing of threats. It serves a protective function and is not always a problem (Lowth, 2018; Stosny, 2020; Zega, 2009).

But anger is a complex emotion, and all too often manifests maladaptively in clients’ lives, when they perceive excessive need for protection, protect the “wrong” things, or use anger to thwart their longer-term best interests. The result is problem anger.

Perhaps because it is so multi-faceted, misperceptions about anger abound, and the question arises: how shall we regard anger? How do we advise the client to think about it? Folk wisdom often would say that the best thing to do is just let it all out, but is it? Clients complain that they cannot control it, that the tendency to be easily angered is inherited, but again, is there evidence for that? Here are common myths people tend to hold about anger, and factual statements following them that you can use to clarify for the client why learning to deal with problem anger is time well spent.

Myth 1: “Anger is inherited.”

This is the client that may try to claim that their father was short-tempered and they have inherited that trait from him, so there is nothing they can do. Such a stance implies an attitude that the expression of anger is a fixed, unalterable set of behaviours. Research shows, however, that expression of anger is learned, so if we have – say, through exposure to aggressive influential others, such as parents – learned to be violent in our expressions, we can also learn healthier, more appropriate, pro-social ways of dealing with it.

Myth 2: “Anger and aggression are the same thing.”

Fact: Nope. Anger is a felt emotional state. Aggression is a behaviour, sometimes carried out in response to anger, but not the same as it. A person can be angry, yet use healthy methods of expression without resorting to violence, threats, or other aggression. Anger does not always lead to aggression. In fact, some experts claim that most daily anger is not followed by aggression. When it does result in aggression the “I3 Model” (pronounced “I cubed”) is deemed responsible. This suggests that aggression emerges as a function of three interacting factors, which all begin with “I”:

Instigation, an event which instils an urge to aggress as a result of, say, being addressed rudely or learning that one’s partner has had an affair (or a relatively “minor” event, such as being cut off in traffic);

Impellance, meaning a force that increases the urge to act in response to an instigating stimulus. These could be strong hormonal releases or a belief system which says that the instigating event should not be tolerated, or even a sociocultural norm which demands that instigating stimuli be responded to immediately and harshly (such as punching back someone who has hit you);

Inhibition, referring to forces that typically work to counter aggression, such as cultural norms, awareness of negative consequences, or perspective-taking or empathy (Kassinove & Tafrate, 2019).

Myth 3: “Other people make me angry.”

Fact: How often in common parlance do we say things like, “He made me so angry!” or “You make me so mad I could kill you!”? Even though we may occasionally speak about people causing emotions other than anger, it is far more frequent to hear such statements in regard to anger. We can choose whether or not we let someone else’s behaviour make us happy, sad, or something else, but we often think and talk about it as if anger is caused directly by others. With the undiscerning listener, an angry person thus gets to use anger as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. Ultimately, it is not the other person’s behaviour that causes our anger, and in fact, it’s not even their intention, though that may influence our behaviour. Being precise, we must acknowledge that it is our interpretation of their intention, expressed in their behaviour/language, which is causative.

Myth 4: “I shouldn’t hold anger in; it’s better to let it out” (either by venting or catharsis).

Fact: If by “holding it in” someone means that they suppress anger, it’s true; ignoring it won’t make it go away and squashing it down is not a healthy choice. Neither, however, is venting. Blowing up in an aggressive tirade only fuels the fire, reinforcing the problem anger. Ditto the use of pillow-punching or other means of catharsis; this may come as a surprise to therapists trained a few years ago, when catharsis was an anger management technique in good standing. Now researchers have found that, even though we feel better in the moment after hitting something, our brain notices, subtly changing its wiring. Then the next time we are angry it softly whispers, “Hit something; you’ll feel better”. The time after that, the wiring is stronger in the brain towards a hitting catharsis, and the angry-brain-voice speaks a little louder. Continuing in this vein means that eventually, we could decide to hit something more alive than a pillow. Rather than either angry venting or catharsis is the use of skills to manage the angry impulse.

Myth 5: “Anger, aggression, and intimidation help me to earn respect and get what I want.”

Fact: People may be afraid of a bully, but they don’t respect those who cannot control themselves or deal with opposing viewpoints. Communicating respectfully is a far superior way to get (most) people to listen and accommodate one’s needs. While the momentary power that comes with successful intimidation may feel heady in the moment, it does not help build the healthy relationships that most people coming to counselling yearn to have.

Myth 6: Anger affects only a certain category of people.

Fact: Anger is a universal emotion that affects everyone. It does not discriminate against people of any particular age, nationality, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, or religion. It is tempting for some people in the educated middle classes to believe that anger is more prevalent among the poor, or those who are less educated or lacking in social skills. Reality does not bear this out, although the expressions of anger do vary among different social groups. Remember, anger is just an emotion, one which does not make people “good” or “bad” for having it.

Myth 7: “I can’t help myself. Anger isn’t something you can control.”

We don’t always get to control the situations of our lives, and some of them may trigger our anger. In fact, it’s also agreed by experts that we don’t (in the short-term) control whether we have angry feelings or not; they just come – although there are longer-term ways to work with clients that see them less easily provoked, and therefore less prone to have the experience of anger. What we do have the short-term choice to control is how we express that anger. Continuing in sessions with you (the therapist) for the purpose of learning how to better handle anger means having more choices of response, even in highly provocative situations.

Myth 8: “When I’m angry I will say what I really mean.”

Fact: This is rarely true. Uncontrolled angry expressions are more about gaining control of or hurting others, not saying what a person’s deepest truth is. 

Myth 9: “By not saying what I’m thinking in the moment, I’m being dishonest and will be even angrier later.”

Fact: There is a strong pull to “speak our mind” when angry. But it is at this time that a person’s judgment is most severely flawed. To speak from anger is to allow the impulsive part of the brain to overrule the rational part. Better for relationships, career, and pretty much everything else to wait until that reasoning part can regain control.

Myth 10: “Men are angrier than women.”

Fact: The sexes experience the same amount of anger, says research; they just express it differently. Men often use aggressive tactics and expressions, whereas women (often constrained culturally) more frequently choose indirect means of expression, such as found in passive-aggressive tactics. This could mean getting back at someone by talking negatively about them or cutting them out of their lives (categories adapted from: Therapist Aid LLC, 2016; Segal & Smith, 2018; Morin, 2015; Morrow, n.d.; Better Relationships, 2021; Gallagher, 2001).

Thought for reflection

Anger has many facets to it, and we have introduced some information here that may seem either startling or counterintuitive. As you think back over the myths we just debunked, which aspect has surprised you the most? Do you have any sense of why that might be? One woman, for example, was very surprised to hear that “men are angrier than women” was only considered a myth; it turned out that in her family, women “never got angry” (we hypothesise that perhaps they were socialised to not show anger), and the men got angry all the time (perhaps more allowed in that woman’s family/culture). In what ways, if at all, might your views about anger have shaped how you behave? How you respond to others? 

And here’s the ultimate question if you share this material with a client: what are their responses to the above questions? How might hearing these myths help them seek more adaptive ways to deal with problem anger? 

The upcoming Mental Health Academy course, “Helping Clients Deal with Problem Anger” draws from numerous therapies and neuroscience to help clinicians and clients collaboratively create a program to address each client’s unique challenges with this universal human emotion.

References:

  1. Better Relationships. (2021). Common myths about anger. Anglicare Southern Queensland. Retrieved on 13 April, 2021, from: Website.
  2. Gallagher, E. (2001). Anger. eddiegallagher.com.au. Retrieved on 13 April, 2021, from: Website.
  3. Kassinove, H., & Tafrate, R.C. (2019). The practitioner’s guide to anger management: Customizable interventions, treatments, and tools for clients with problem anger. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 
  4. Lowth, M. (2018). Anger management. Patient. Retrieved on 7 April, 2021, from: Website.
  5. Morin, A. (2015). 7 myths about anger and why they’re wrong. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 13 April, 2021, from: Website.
  6. Morrow, A. (n.d.). Anger myths. Stress and Anger Management Institute. Retrieved on 13 April, 2021, from: Website.
  7. Segal, J., & Smith, M. (2018). Anger management: Tips and techniques for getting anger under control. Helpguide.org. Retrieved on 9 April, 2021, from: Website.    
  8. Stosny, S. (2020). Beyond anger management. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 9 April, 2021, from: Website.
  9. Therapist Aid, LLC. (2016). Anger warning signs. Therapist Aid LLC. Retrieved on 7 April, 2021, from: Website.
  10. Zega, K. (2009). Holistic Psychotherapy (159). Retrieved on 7 April, 2021, from: Website.

Addressing Paranoia in CounsellingAddressing Paranoia in Counselling

Retrieved from Issue 346 of Institute Inbrief 20/01/2021

Paranoia: Definition and levels

When a person believes that others are “out to get them”, trying to stalk or harm them, or paying excessive attention to them for no reason, they may be experiencing paranoia. Occurring in many mental health conditions, paranoia is most often present in psychotic disorders. It involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts, most often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy (Mental Health America, n.d.). It can be a symptom of illnesses such as schizophrenia, brief psychosis, paranoid personality, psychotic depression, mania with psychotic features, delusional disorders, or substance abuse (chronic or momentary) (Barron, 2016).

Mental health experts have identified three levels of paranoia:

  1. Paranoid personality disorder (PPD): Characterised by odd or eccentric ways of thinking, PPD involves an unrelenting mistrust and suspicion of others when there is no reason to be suspicious. It is one of the personality disorders in the DSM-5’s Cluster A, along with schizoid and schizotypal personality disorders. Thought to be the mildest form of paranoia, a person with PPD may still be able to function in relationships, employment, and social activities. The onset is typically in early adulthood and is more common in men than in women.
     
  2. Delusional (paranoid) disorder: Found in the DSM-5 chapter, “Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders”, this is a condition in which an individual holds one major false belief or delusion; it will often be an implausible but not bizarre delusion. A delusional disorder typically occurs without any other signs of mental illness. So a person might think that others are talking behind their back if they have a persecutory delusion, or believe that they need immediate medical attention for a (non-existent) medical problem if they have a somatic delusion. This condition is slightly more common in women than men.
     
  3. Schizophrenia with bizarre delusions: People with this condition do not function well in society and need consistent treatment (Sunrise House, 2018; WebMD, 2018).This is the most severe form of paranoia, involving bizarre delusions without basis, such as that aliens are trying to abduct them, or that an unseen enemy is removing their internal organs and replacing them with others’ organs.


This article is about Levels (1) and (2), the paranoid personality disorder (PPD) and delusional disorder, which you may encounter more commonly, either in your client or the client’s partner.

Identifying paranoia

We have several options for finding out what characteristics should be called “paranoid”: we can assess how we experience the person — how we describe them and what they evoke in us — and/or we can run with DSM-5 descriptions, which outline the clinical symptoms we can observe specifically with the paranoid personality disorder and delusional disorder. Let’s do both.

Descriptions of the paranoid person

Joe Navarro, who has written extensively about mental disorders, asked those who had either lived with or been victimised by paranoid personality types to describe this personality type from their experiences. Here is the list of some of their words:

“Angry, anxious, apprehensive, combative, complainer, contrarian, critical, delusional, demanding, difficult, distrustful, disturbed, eccentric, fanatic, fearful, fixated, fussy, guarded, hard-headed, inhospitable, intense, irrational, know-it-all, menacing, mentally rigid, moralistic, obsessed, odd, offensive, opinionated, sensitive, peculiar, pedantic, quarrelsome, questioning, rigid, scary, strict, stubborn, suspicious, tense, threatening, tightly-wound, touchy, unforgiving, unhappy, vindictive, wary, watchful, withdrawn” (Navarro, 2016).

What they evoke in us:

Experiencing a relationship with someone described by such intense words as those above cannot fail to bring forth a reaction in us. Laurel Nowak (2018) outlines the common feelings evoked by paranoid individuals in those with whom they are in relationship. She talks about: “feeling weighed down, negative, stressed, isolated from the people and activities you used to enjoy, and like you’re walking on eggshells”. Some have noted that it can feel to the other person like they are not being seen — ever — for who they truly are. The exaggerated negative spin on events or in response to statements occurs in the context of relating which lacks tenderness, humour, or comfort (Navarro, 2016). While these authors are describing feelings evoked in intimate relationships with paranoid individuals, they could have been talking about how therapists feel when faced with a client with this condition. Dealing with such a person eats away at the most robust sense of happiness and self-esteem. Here are the DSM-5 symptoms.

Paranoid Personality Disorder: DSM-5 symptoms description

According to the DSM-5, there are two primary diagnostic criteria for Paranoid Personality Disorder, of which Criterion A has seven sub-features. Four of these must be present to warrant a diagnosis of PPD:

Criterion A is: Global mistrust and suspicion of others’ motives which commences in adulthood. The seven sub-features of Criterion A are:

  1. Belief others are using, lying to, or harming them, without apparent evidence thereof
  2. Doubts about the loyalty and trustworthiness of friends and associates
  3. Inability to confide in others due to the belief that their confidence will be betrayed
  4. Interpretation of ambiguous or benign remarks as hurtful or threatening
  5. Holding grudges (being unforgiving of insults, injuries, or slights)
  6. In the absence of objective evidence, belief that their reputation or character are being assailed by others; retaliation in some manner
  7. Being jealous and suspicious without cause that intimate partners are being unfaithful.


Criterion B is that the above symptoms will not be during a psychotic episode in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depressive disorder with psychotic features (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Delusional Disorder: DSM-5 definition and types

According to the DSM-5, this condition is characterised by at least one month of delusions but no other psychotic symptoms. Delusions are false beliefs based on incorrect inference about external reality that persist despite the evidence to the contrary; these beliefs are not ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture. In delusional disorder (a moderate level of paranoia), a person experiences non-schizophrenic (i.e., not bizarre) delusions, such as that they are that they are being spied on. Because only thoughts are affected, a person with a delusional disorder can act normal and function in everyday life, although they may display paranoia or other symptoms related to their delusion. The five types of delusions people with this disorder have are:

  1. Erotomanic, where there is a belief that a person with higher social or financial standing (such as the president or a movie star) is in love with them; it can lead to stalking and obsession.
     
  2. Grandiose, involving the false belief that the person has a special power or ability not shared by anyone else (such as that they are extremely lucky and will always win at the casino).
     
  3. Jealous: a mistaken belief that a current or former loved one is unfaithful or even harmful. Paranoia about the loved one’s words or actions can be a symptom of these delusions.
     
  4. Persecutory, in which the common sense of the paranoia is that someone is out to get the individual, because the person believes they are being threatened, mistreated, or that they will be harmed in the future.
     
  5. Somatic: a delusion in which the individual believes that they have an illness, disability or physical defect (Sunrise House, 2018; Mental Health America, n.d.; Bourgeois, 2017).


Treating and coping with paranoia

For the therapist

First, we must note the common advice: a person suffering from either PPD or a delusional disorder needs to seek professional help, although most such individuals do not believe that they are paranoid; rather, they think they are perceptive, noticing things that no one else sees. In this sense, it can be difficult to get such a person to therapy, as the condition tends to be ego syntonic. If such an individual turns up in your therapy rooms, however, note that a referral to a medical doctor is in order to determine if medication is needed.

Medication generally is not a major focus of treatment for PPD; therapy is. However, medications, such as anti-anxiety, antidepressant, or anti-psychotic drugs, might be prescribed if the person’s symptoms are extreme, or if he or she also suffers from an associated psychological problem, such as anxiety or depression (WebMD, 2018).

With delusional disorders, the diagnosed individual begins a combination of medication and psychotherapy. The anti-psychotic medication helps the individual improve enough to be able to understand reality and the need for therapeutic help. In milder cases, the individual may receive anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants, which allows them to undergo therapy, where they learn coping skills, how to recognise delusions as false, and how to manage stress or difficult feelings. Hospitalisation may sometimes be indicated to stop the person from harming themselves or others during violent delusions (Sunrise House, 2018).

As the condition affects the client’s thought patterns and beliefs, it can be worked with effectively using cognitive behavioural therapy, which transforms the unrealistic, maladaptive thoughts by replacing them with more helpful, realistic adaptive thoughts. In addition, some therapists have observed that psychodynamic work, such as object relations, can help paranoid clients look into reasons for becoming mistrustful and suspicious which arise from early childhood relationships (Everyday Health, n.d.).

You might be asking, “Wait a minute; chief symptoms are a tendency to be suspicious and an inability to trust. How, then, can a therapist make any reasonable headway with such a client, given that trust is the basis for any solid therapeutic alliance?” If you twigged to this issue, congratulations; you have nailed the problem: how to keep the paranoid client in therapy long enough for enough trust to be built so that real progress can be made. Building trust is where the challenge is, no matter what modality is being used with the client.

To help a client in relationship with a person living with paranoia

You are likely to see the partner of a person acting paranoid. Once it is established that some form of paranoia is indeed the diagnosis, some clear guidelines exist for helping the partner. Some of the following tips also hold true for therapists working with this client population.

Setting boundaries. The paranoid person needs compassion and understanding, true, but that does not equate to acceptance of poor treatment on the grounds that the person has a disorder and is frustrated. Clear lines of what is acceptable and what is not must be drawn; those expectations for decent treatment must be communicated clearly, including around the issue of refusing to collude with delusional thinking (compromising one’s own needs) because of the person’s paranoia or fear.

Practicing self-care. For therapists and partners alike, this one is paramount! Dealing with this disorder is exhausting and sometimes heart-breaking. Those in close relationships (whether intimate or therapeutic) with paranoid individuals must have regular, solid habits of self-care. All the usual practices go into this category: relaxation/meditation, exercise, decent diet, support systems activated, and perhaps journalling or creative work to vent frustrations. Particularly for partners of those with PPD or a delusional disorder, maintaining a healthy social life — not allowing oneself to become isolated — is important.

Don’t abandon own stance, but empathise with their fear. If either the partner of the paranoid person or you, as therapist, hear an accusation that seems really “off” — totally unfounded — you can employ the tactic of empathising with the feeling, but not necessarily agreeing with the facts (though outright disagreeing doesn’t work, either). Carrie Baron, M.D., and Director of the Resilience Program at Dell Medical School in Texas, explains that consoling the person and refuting what they have said will not likely alter any paranoid convictions or delusions. What works better is “observation, reflection, curiosity and openness without judgment”, which lead to better understanding (Barron, 2016). Thus, the partner could say to the paranoid person, “I can imagine you’re worried if you think that the inheritance you counted on for your retirement might be taken away through your dad marrying. Have you observed any behaviour that made you question her motives?” (curiosity). However they do it, partners of people with any form of paranoia must look beneath the surface before getting swept up in the partner’s claims (Barron, 2016).

Recognise that the paranoid person can still contribute to life. Because of the fact that mild or moderate forms of paranoia are circumscribed, showing up only in particular thoughts and delusions, only those involved or accused may be aware of the psychopathology of the condition. The person can thus contribute to family life, work, and aspects of social life in positive ways, which you as therapist can help highlight for the partner.

Having either a client or a client’s partner who is paranoid is not easy, but the worst heartbreak and chaos can be avoided if the person can engage treatment, including medication when necessary.

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.(5th Edition). Washington, DC.: APA.
  2. Barron, C. (2016). 7 Tips for coping with a paranoid partner. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  3. Bourgeois, J. (2017). Delusional disorder. Medscape. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.
  4. Everyday Health. (n.d.) Coping with paranoia in a loved one. Everyday Health. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  5. Mental Health America. (n.d.). Paranoia and delusional disorders. Mental Health America. Retrieved on 6 December, 2018, from: Website.
  6. Navarrro, J. (2016). The paranoid partner: Identifying the paranoid personality in relationships. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  7. Nowak, L. (2018). Paranoid personality disorder and relationships: Moving past fear, together. Bridges to Recovery. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  8. Sunrise House. (2018). Is there a difference between paranoia and delusional disorders? American Addiction Centers. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.
  9. WebMD. (2018). Paranoid personality disorder. WebMD LLC. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.

Self-sabotage is self-sabotaging. Why would anyone do this?Self-sabotage is self-sabotaging. Why would anyone do this?

As I always like to say, there are as many reasons why people self-sabotage as there are people. A common theme is to protect the self from failure, feeling things we don’t want to feel, and to control our experiences.

One of the hidden culprits behind self-sabotage is the need for perfection and control. Self-sabotage has a strange way of helping us maintain the illusion that if only we had put in more effort or had better circumstances, everything would have worked out as it should. Social psychologists call this counter-intuitive strategy of regulating self-esteem ‘self-handicapping.’ It’s very seductive to engage in self-sabotage because the hidden payoff is high. It’s often easier to be a perfect whole rather than a real part. It’s a short-term solution that sidesteps the more arduous but ultimately more fulfilling work of individuation and self-realization. It takes risk, patience, suffering, and ultimately wisdom to come to the place where you can let go of self-sabotage and learn how to be real.

Behaviour is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems in daily life and interferes with long-standing goals. The most common self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, self-medication with alcohol and other drugs, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.

Self-sabotage originates in the internal critic we all have, the side that has been internalized by the undermining and negative voices we’ve encountered in our lives. This critic and ‘internal sabotuer,’ functions to keep the person from risking being hurt, shamed, or traumatized in the ways they had been in the past. While it keeps the individual safe, it does so at a very high cost, foreclosing the possibility of new, creative, and three-dimensional experiences. Like an addiction, self-sabotage insidiously lulls and deludes us into thinking that it has the answer. In fact, it is the problem masquerading as the solution. Nothing stops self-sabotage faster in its tracks than shining this particular light on it. Consciousness is true power. We need to let go of our illusions of omnipotence and perfection and see that it is only when we are real and imperfect that we can create a true work of art. Then and only then we can enjoy the gifts of being Real.

– Michael Alcée, Ph.D., Relational therapist/ Clinical psychologistArt: Bawa Manjit, Acrobat

Self-Sabotage | Psychology Today Australia

OCD: tips for self-managementOCD: tips for self-management

People living with obsessive-compulsive disorder are encouraged to follow three general tips for effective self-management. They are: challenge the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours (this includes use of distraction skills, and resisting the compulsion), maintain high self-care (you may need to put your needs first a lot – this is NOT selfishness or self-centredness), and reaching out for support. I want to clarify that I am not trained or qualified in OCD treatment – this is an extract from an article posted on the Australian Institute of Professional Counselling website.

The following information has been retrieved from AIPC Article Library | Self-help Strategies for OCD and OCPD. I think it’s also important to reinforce that if you have been living with OCD for years, you’re probably the expert on what is already most effective for you, and some of the following suggestions may make you roll your eyes. It can be very helpful/useful to talk to other people who live with OCD. They may understand your experience better than health workers, and this can be comforting, validating and healing.

Challenge the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. In addition to refocusing, the OCD client can learn to recognise and reduce stress. Some of the strategies here are counter-intuitive. You can urge clients to “go with the flow” by writing down obsessive thoughts, anticipating OCD urges, and creating “legitimate” worry periods. Tell them to:

Write down your obsessive thoughts or worries. Keep a pen and pad, laptop, tablet, or smartphone nearby. When the obsessive thoughts come, simply write them down. Keep writing as the urges continue, even if all you are doing is repeating the same phrases over and over. Writing helps you see how repetitive the obsessions are and also causes them to lose their power. As writing is harder than thinking, the obsessive thoughts will disappear sooner.

Anticipate OCD urges. You can help ease compulsive urges before they arise by anticipating them. For example, if you are a “checker” subtype, you can pay extra attention the first time you lock the window or turn off the jug, combining the action with creating a solid mental picture of yourself doing the action, and simultaneously telling yourself, “I can see that the window is now locked.” Later urges to check can then be more easily re-labelled as “just an obsessive thought”.

Create an OCD worry period. Rather than suppressing obsessions or compulsions, reschedule them. Give yourself one or two 10-minute “worry periods” each day, times you are allowed to freely devote to obsessing. During the periods, you are to focus only on negative thoughts or urges, without correcting them. At the end of the period, let the obsessive thoughts go and return to normal activities. The rest of the day is to be free of obsessions and compulsions. When the urges come during non-worry periods, write them down and agree to postpone dealing with them until the worry period. During the worry time, read the list and assess whether you still want to obsess on the items in it or not.

Create a tape of your OCD obsessions. Choose a specific worry or obsession and record it into a voice recorder, laptop or smartphone, recounting it exactly as it comes into your mind. Play the recording back to yourself over and over for a 45-minute period each day, until listening to it no longer causes you to feel highly distressed. This continuous confrontation of the obsession helps you to gradually become less anxious. When the anxiety of one worry has decreased significantly, you can repeat the exercise for a different obsession (Robinson et al, 2013).

Maintain good self-care. A healthy, balanced lifestyle plays an important role in managing OCD and the attendant anxiety (generally present with OCD, even though the disorder is no longer classified as an “anxiety disorder” per se), so the helpfulness of the following practices – truly not rocket science – cannot be underscored. Encourage OCD clients to:

  • Practice relaxation techniques, for at least 30 minutes a day, to avoid triggering symptoms.
  • Adopt healthy eating habits, beginning with a good breakfast followed by frequent small meals – with much whole grain, fruit and vegetable – throughout the day to avoid blood sugar lows and to boost serotonin.
  • Exercise regularly; it’s a natural anti-anxiety treatment. Get 30 minutes plus of aerobic activity most days.
  • Avoid alcohol and nicotine, as these increase anxiety after the initial effects wear off.
  • Get enough sleep; a lack of it exacerbates anxious thoughts and feelings (Robinson et al, 2013).

Reach out for support. Staying connected to family and friends is the best defense an OCD client can muster against intrusive obsessions and compulsive urges, because social isolation exacerbates symptoms. Talking about worries and urges makes them seem less threatening. Also, involving others in one’s treatment can help maintain motivation and guard against setbacks. To help remind the client that s/he is not alone in the struggle with OCD, ask him or her to consider joining a support group, where personal experiences are shared and attendees also learn from others facing similar problems.

OCPD: Self-help strategies for survival

For both the person diagnosed with OCPD and also for his family and friends, dealing with this disorder requires patience, compassion, and fortitude. To start with, the ego-syntonic nature of OCPD means that the person does not necessarily agree that he has anything wrong at all. For those who staunchly continue to insist that their relational problems arise because of others’ faults, treatment is complicated. Given the OCPD’s general world view of “I am correct; you are wrong”, the prognosis for change is often poor. Transformation is likely to occur only when the OCPD’s relational skills and outlook are shifted. This is not a job for medication (at least not for long and not alone), and yet psychotherapy is not always available. When it is, the OCPD is not always willing to avail himself of it.

Regardless of this less-than-ideal context for managing OCPD, there are some things that the client himself and also friends and family can do to alleviate some of the tension and conflict that goes with living with the disorder. As a therapist, you can encourage the client and those around him to utilise some of these strategies.

Bibliotherapy. It’s a good idea to read up on OCPD, not only in order to know what to expect, but also for tips in dealing with it. Your client may also come upon writings that link some behaviours and lifestyle choices to the disorder in ways not understood before. When comprehension deepens, so, too, does the prospect of compassion.

Gentle confrontation (agreed beforehand). While we agree that OCPD clients have a mammoth need to be right, those clients who truly seek to feel better may be willing to make agreements with family and friends in which OCPD behaviours, when noticed, are gently challenged; the operative word here is gently.

Self-insight through journalling or tape-recording. We noted above that many OCPD clients are intelligent, sensitive people. Thus, keeping a diary or making voice recordings to note anything upsetting, anxiety-provoking, overwhelming, or depressing is a step toward the self-insight that will eventually help to manage the disorder. Too, family and friends may agree to note their observations and share them in a constructive, non-confrontational manner.

Good self-care. OCPD is a disorder about exaggerated need for control, so keeping on an emotional even keel can help reduce the unconscious need to micro-manage all of life. Strategies to achieve this are listed above under Tip 2 for maintaining self-care with OCD. They revolve around the basic life efforts of practicing relaxation techniques, adopting healthy eating and exercise regimens, getting decent sleep, and avoiding excessive alcohol/drug consumption (the last is not hard for the OCPD).

Reaching out for help. OCPD individuals tend to be loners, and relationships are hard for them to build and maintain. Nevertheless, it is helpful to the ultimate reduction of OCPD-engendered tension to go for support. This can be in the form of self-help groups, informal support from partner, family, and friends, or even from joining online communities of people dealing with the disorder. Whatever the form of the support, it may be helpful for OCPD clients to own their places of dysfunction when they see others owning their imperfect humanness – and surviving (Robinson et al, 2013)!

References

  • Long, P. (2011). Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. Internet mental health. Retrieved on 18 April, 2013, from: hyperlink.
  • Robinson, L., Smith, M., & Segal, J. (2013). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Symptoms and treatment of compulsive behaviour and obsessive thoughts. Helpguide.org. Retrieved on 24 April, 2013, from: hyperlink.

The ‘Triune Brain’ theory by Neuroscientist Paul MacLean — an evolutionary perspectiveThe ‘Triune Brain’ theory by Neuroscientist Paul MacLean — an evolutionary perspective

The Concept of the "Triune Brain"

In the 1960s, American neuroscientist Paul MacLean formulated the ‘Triune Brain’ model, which is based on the division of the human brain into three distinct regions. MacLean’s model suggests the human brain is organized into a hierarchy, which itself is based on an evolutionary view of brain development. The three regions are as follows:

  1. Reptilian or Primal Brain (Basal Ganglia)
  2. Paleomammalian or Emotional Brain (Limbic System)
  3. Neomammalian or Rational Brain (Neocortex)

At the most basic level, the brainstem (Primal Brain) helps us identify familiar and unfamiliar things. Familiar things are usually seen as safe and preferable, while unfamiliar things are treated with suspicion until we have assessed them and the context in which they appear. For this reason, designers, advertisers, and anyone else involved in selling products tend to use familiarity as a means of evoking pleasant emotions.

Inattentional Blindness: What else are we missing?Inattentional Blindness: What else are we missing?

Inattentional Blindness is the failure to notice an unexpected object in a visual display.

Cognitive Psychology is an approach to understanding human cognition by observing behaviour of people performing cognitive tasks. It is concerned with the internal processes involved in making sense of our environment, and deciding what behaviour to be appropriate. These processes include attention, perception, learning, memory, language, problem-solving, reasoning, and thinking.

Re-write: Distract!

The most famous experiment that shows evidence for inattentional blindness is the Simons and Chabris (1999) experiment where an audience or viewer watches a group of people pass a ball to one another wearing either black or white, and a woman dressed as a gorilla enters the frame for 9 seconds, then walks off. Results reported that 50% of the observers did not notice the gorilla enter the frame. In all honesty, when I saw the video for the first time at university, I did not see the gorilla enter the frame either.

In reality, we are often aware of changes in our visual environment because we detect motion cues accompanying the change. This information suggests that our ability to detect visual changes is not only due to the detection of movement. An obvious explanation of the gorilla experiment findings is that the visual representations we form in our mind are sparse and incomplete because they depend on our limited attentional focus. Simons and Rensick (2005) point out that there are other explanations, such as: detailed and complete representations may exist initially but may either decay rapidly or be overwritten by a subsequent stimulus. It needs to be said that in the gorilla experiment, the observers are instructed to count how many times the ball passes, so really, our attention is deliberately compromised. The real-life implications of inattentional blindness reveals the role of selective attention in human perception. Inattentional blindness represents a consequence of this critical process that allows us to remain focused on important aspects of our world without distraction from seemingly irrelevant objects and events.

Being present, in the moment (mindfulness) can help aid our attention. Distractions such as using our mobile phones, advertising material, other people, “multi-tasking” and internal emotional states all contribute to our lack of focus and attention. Think of a magician’s ability to manipulate their audiences attention in order to prevent them from seeing how a trick is performed. There are also safety implications, as you would know … if you’ve been paying attention, haha.

Just food for thought, my readers, and friends 🙂

Understanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destructionUnderstanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destruction

What is meant by self-harm?

Self-harm is any behaviour that involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself without the intention to end your life. Self-harm can include behaviours such as cutting, burning or hitting oneself, binge-eating or starvation, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations. It can also involve abuse of drugs or alcohol, including overdosing on prescription medications. Self-harm is usually a response to distress, whether it be from mental illness, trauma, or psychological pain. Some people find that the physical pain of self-harm helps provide temporary relief from emotional pain (extract from Self harm (lifeline.org.au)).

People who engage in self-harm will profess that they have no intention of dying and that their self-harming behaviour is a coping strategy, however, there are incidents of accidental suicide. The act of self-harm can develop into an obsessive-compulsion experience which can be very difficult to stop, like addiction, without outside intervention. This can result in feelings of hopelessness and possible suicidal thinking. Like building a tolerance to a drug, when self-injury does not relieve the tension or help control negative thoughts and feelings, the person may injure themselves more severely or may start to believe they can no longer control their pain and may consider suicide.

The following extract by Tracy Alderman Ph.D explains the physiological response to physical pain:

“Physiologically, endorphins are released when we are injured or stressed. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that act similarly to morphine and reduce the amount of pain we experience when we are hurt. Joggers often report experiencing a “runners high” when reaching a physically stressful period. This “high” is the physiological reaction to the release of endorphins – the masking of pain by a substance that mimics morphine. When people self-injure, the same process takes place. Endorphins are released which limit or block the amount of physical pain that’s experienced. Sometimes people who intentionally hurt themselves will even say that they felt a “rush” or “high” from the act. Given the role of endorphins, this makes perfect sense” (Oct 22, 2009).

Please click on the link for the full article Myths and Misconceptions of Self-Injury: Part II | Psychology Today Australia

The first step is to distinguish between self-harming and suicidal behaviour by paying attention to a person’s underlying motivation. When working with self-harming behaviour it is important to remember that this behaviour serves a purpose. In collaboration with the client, try to identify what problem self-harm solves for the client. For example, from the client’s perspective:

  • To make me feel real (counteracts dissociation)
  • To punish me (temporarily lessens guilt or shame)
  • To stop me from feeling (when strong feelings are too dangerous)
  • To mark the body (to show externally the internal scars)
  • To let something bad out (symbolic way to try to get rid of shame, pain, etc.)
  • To remember
  • To keep from hurting someone else (to control my behaviour and my anger)
  • To communicate (to let someone know how bad the pain is)
  • To express anger indirectly (to punish someone without getting them angry at me)
  • To reclaim control of the body (this time I’m in charge)
  • To feel better

Tips for helping yourself in the moment
It can be hard for people who self-harm to stop it by themselves. That’s why it’s important to get further help if needed; however, the ideas below may be helpful to start relieving some distress:

  • Intense exercise for 30 seconds, 30 second break, repeat, up to 15 minutes – Exercising intensely will help your body mitigate unpleasant energy that can sometimes be stored from strong emotions. Transfer this energy by running, walking at a fast pace, doing jumping jacks, etc. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which will help combat any negative emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness.
  • Delay — put off self-harming behaviours until you have spoken to someone.
  • Distract — do some exercise, go for a walk, play a game, do something kind for yourself, play loud music or use positive coping strategies.
  • Deep breathing — or other relaxation methods.
  • Cool your body temperature – Cooler temperatures decrease your heart rate (which is usually faster when we are emotionally overwhelmed). You can either splash your face with cold water, take a cold (but not too cold) shower, or if the weather outside is chilly you can go outside for a walk. Another idea is to take an ice cube and hold it in your hand or rub your face with it.
  • Listen to loud music
  • Call someone you trust or one of the services available like LifeLine 13 11 14, MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 and BeyondBlue 1300 22 4636 [see below].
  • You could write an email to yourself to express your emotions, or journal your feelings, if that’s something that might be effective for you.
  • Watch humorous Youtube clips

New, healthier coping strategies may not be as effective as the one you’re trying to replace so it may take practice. Bring lots of compassion to yourself, okay.

You may find that some of these strategies work in some situations but not others, or you may find that you need to use a combination of these. It’s important to find what works for you. Also, remember that these are not long-term solutions to self-harm but rather, useful short-term alternatives for relieving distress.

Mental health services infographic

Polyvagal Theory and Trauma – Dr. Stephen PorgesPolyvagal Theory and Trauma – Dr. Stephen Porges

Stephen Porges, psychiatry professor and researcher, on the polyvagal theory he developed to understand our reactions to trauma:

[Paraphrased] Polyvagal theory articulates three branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that evolved from primitive vertebrates to mammals. First, there is a system known as ‘freeze’, which involves death feigning or immobilisation. Second, the ANS has a ‘fight or flight’ system, which is a mobilisation system. And third, with mammals, there is what Porges calls, a social engagement system (SES), which can detect features of safety, and actually communicate them to another. The SES may also be referred to by some as ‘rest and digest’, which Porges theory suggests is a function of the Vagus Nerve – the tenth cranial nerve, a very long and wandering nerve that begins at the medulla oblongata. When an individual experiences feelings of safety (within an SES state), the autonomic nervous system can support health restoration. In terms of dealing with a life threat, an ordinary person will most likely go into a feigning death, dissociative state of ‘freeze’.

Polyvagal theory in psychotherapy offers emotional co-regulation as an interactive process between therapist and client which engages the social engagement system of both therapist and client. Social engagement provides experiences of safety, trust, mutuality and reciprocity in which we are open to receiving another person, just as they are.

The following extract has been retrived from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/02/stephen-porges-interview-survivors-are-blamed-polyvagal-theory-fight-flight-psychiatry-ace

Polyvagal theory has made inroads into medical and psycho-therapeutic treatment, but how should it inform how people treat each other?


“When we become a polyvagal-informed society, we’re functionally capable of listening to and witnessing other people’s experiences, we don’t evaluate them. Listening is part of co-regulation: we become connected to others and this is what I call our biological imperative. So when you become polyvagal-informed you have a better understanding of your evolutionary heritage as a mammal. We become aware of how our physiological state is manifested, in people’s voices and in their facial expression, posture and basic muscle tone. If there’s exuberance coming from the upper part of a person’s face, and their voice has intonation modulation or what’s called prosody, we become attracted to the person. We like to talk to them – it’s part of our co-regulation.

So when we become polyvagal-informed, we start understanding not only the other person’s response but also our responsibility to smile and have inflection in our voice, to help the person we’re talking to help their body feel safe.”

Clink on the link below to hear Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading experts on developmental trauma, explain how our long-term health and happiness can be compromised by prior exposure to violence, emotional abuse, and other forms of traumatic stress.

https://youtu.be/53RX2ESIqsM

Men and Emotions: From Repression to Expression published by AIPC (2019)Men and Emotions: From Repression to Expression published by AIPC (2019)

In our previous article (read it here), we asked why men do not seem to express emotion as easily as women do. Was there some pathology, or should we just put the differences down to male-female tendencies? We identified Dr Ron Levant’s notion of “normative male alexithymia” as representative of one side of the controversy: namely, that, yes, men do have a restricted range of emotional expression compared to women, but it’s so pervasive in society that it’s normal (Schexnayder, 2019).

On the other side of the debate were researchers such as James Thompson (2010), who – while acknowledging men’s relatively greater “stoicism” or restriction emotionally – nevertheless insisted that it’s invalid to conflate alexithymia with maleness, especially given that men’s holding back from emotional expression is largely culturally induced. Yet we observed that the issue should be dealt with, given the male-female suicide ratio in Australia, the U.K., and the United States of about 3:1 – and the fact that suicide is on the rise in all three countries.

We concluded that therapy might be able to help, and that is where we go with this article: to a discussion of just how we as mental health professionals might be able to help men deal with an outdated but strongly held socialisation pattern which has impacted their emotional expression, and through that, their capacity for growth, satisfying friendships, and intimate relationships. 

We tackle the question in two parts. First, we share psychologist Barbara Markway’s (2014) take on how to help men out of the double bind that leads to their emotional repression. Then we suggest therapies which might be able to assist.

Deciphering the code

Markway (2014) insists that dismissing men as “the feelingless gender” is not only unhelpful, but also wrong. They just, she says, express their feelings using a secret code: one which even they themselves cannot decipher. Let’s do some translation.

Men convert one feeling into another

Let’s say you’re a guy, and you’ve just found out that a good friend of yours has been cheated in business by her business partner: a business you yourself helped them set up. The cheating transactions will cost your friend thousands, and maybe her whole business. You may erupt volcanically, vowing to help your friend sue the partner for all they are worth, or maybe go threaten the partner within an inch of their life. If you react this way, you are showing anger and not a little pride, which are acceptable “male” emotions to express. Hiding underneath them could be sadness for your friend, and even a shared sense of vulnerability, but these are more “feminine” emotions, which by socialisation you are not “allowed” to express. So you convert them into “male” emotions of anger and pride.

Men may shift their feelings into another domain

Are you male, and basically an exuberant, affectionate sort? Markway claims you may not necessarily let this show in your personal relationships, but on the sports field, lookout; you’ll be hugging, high-fiving, and butt-slapping with the best of them. It’s ok in that domain, she says, for men to express strong feelings of delight (over a goal made, say) and affection.

Men may somatise their feelings

Let’s say now that you’re female, and in an intimate partnership with a guy. You make plans to get away for a holiday, but no sooner have you checked into the five-star hotel at the fabulous beach than he gets a migraine and is out of action for that day at least. What’s going on? Markway observes that, with the structure of work, many men are able to squash down feelings, but when they are away from that structure, such as on weekends or holidays, their emotions and needs surface. Not wanting to acknowledge them, many men will convert strong emotions into physical symptoms, such as headaches or back aches. If asked about it, some men would have the conscious belief that women do want them to show their emotions, but only certain ones, and only in amounts they (the women) can handle. Men who deviate from this are, as we have noted, judged to be poorly adjusted or not “manly enough”, because – at the root of it – they are bucking their whole socialisation model.

Men’s emotional expression can put us all off balance

When men do get in touch with emotions, the result can catch everyone off guard, as it may seem to come “out of the blue” and be overwhelming. In fact, for any of us, when we chronically stuff down feelings, we don’t get the practice of handling strong emotion. When it does come up, then, we are ill-prepared to deal with it. Think, for example, of the person stoically putting up with an in-law criticising their partner, probably repeatedly. At some stage, there will be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” – just one criticism too many – and the person may unleash a massive emotional response, consisting in part of stored-up feeling from previous violations (adapted from Markway, 2014). 

It’s not that these ways of directing emotion “sideways” are bad, but if a more direct emotional expression is desired, how can we help our male clients escape from the clutches of restrictive socialisation?

Re-setting the code

It’s a big job to help someone move past lifelong “training” in a given direction. In the case where the client is keen to make changes in his way of dealing with emotions (that is, his issues with emotional expression are ego-dystonic), psychodynamic therapies and the social constructionist narrative and solution-focused therapies may be hugely helpful; we briefly highlight these, while acknowledging that other therapies, such as motivational interviewing and CBT, may also have a role to play. In the case where the man is dragged into session because his partner is experiencing huge frustration but the man himself does not see that he has a problem (that is: his issues with emotional expression are ego-syntonic), we can look hopefully to emotionally focused therapy, although family therapy and other couples modes, such as imago therapy, likely have much to offer.

We put the psychodynamic therapies right up front in our discussion. Why? If, as is generally claimed, men’s emotional responses are because of socialisation and/or attachment processes, then that therapy may be most efficacious which can take the client back to the root of those processes: the early childhood years when all of us – for better or worse – began to be socialised into our respective “tribes”.

Jung’s psychoanalysis

Carl Jung espoused the essential wholeness of all human beings, but believed that most of us have lost touch with important parts of ourselves. Life’s goal of individuation demands that we give expression to the various components – often conflicted – of our psyche. These typically repressed components cause psychological disturbance until they are made conscious. Each person has a story and when mental illness occurs, it is because the personal story has been denied or rejected; healing comes when the person recovers and owns his or her own personal story (Sonoma.edu, n.d.).

The story will include symbolic archetypes. A man could, for example, be modelling after the archetype of the Invincible Warrior, which could express part of who he is, but he may have repressed the complementary Nurturing Earthmother part of himself (due to that part being discouraged culturally). The task in therapy, then, would be to help the man discover his Nurturing Earthmother side. The two sides, harmonised together, could transcend either archetype and help such a client come into greater wholeness (Geist, 2013).

Psychosynthesis

Similarly, Psychosynthesis, a transpersonal psychology, asks clients to work with body, feelings, and mind to synthesise, or integrate, the various “selves” inside them into a harmonious whole. Psychosynthesis postulates “subpersonalities”: parts of ourselves which constellate and act out in order to meet needs or to defend against needs which seem unable to be met (Assagioli, 1965). Thus, the same man – in angst because of being constrained from tender, loving expressions or emotional sentimentality – may discover an angry subpersonality within himself: one which, he later discovers, is in conflict with its opposite number, a “Sentimental Sally” subpersonality which, while weaker, nevertheless is driving the man’s behaviour from underground because it is not acknowledged; its needs for permission to express a softer side will continue to cause it to act out in some way until those needs are met.

Thus in this mode, therapy consists of finding out what conspired to prevent the man expressing his softer side and working out how it can find expression appropriately in the man’s life. Sentimental Sally also has to work in with the angry subpersonality (as the two will vie for dominance), and both must cooperate with the man’s greater, whole psyche. Somewhere along the way of this, the man is likely to recall early events which shaped his way of being: for example, leaning into his mother for a cuddle when upset and being pushed out and told, “Big boys don’t cry”.

Schema therapy

In some ways, schema therapy would seem to combine the best of several worlds. From its psychodynamic predecessors, it inherits its basic notions that mental health troubles arise from early needs not being met. Five areas of basic human needs are outlined, such as for secure attachment and autonomy/competence. Frustration of these engenders 18 domains of early maladaptive schemas (EMS), from mistrust and abandonment to emotional inhibition (Young, n.d.). The schemas are perpetuated in a person’s life, say practitioners, through cognitive distortions, self-defeating life patterns, and unhelpful schema coping styles, which cause others to respond negatively, thus reinforcing the schema(s) (Young, 2012a). 

In the psyche’s effort to heal, individuals set up relationships similar to the unsatisfying ones which originally engendered the EMS, and thus the unhealthy object relations which stultify growth are continued. The therapist can ask the “lonely child” or “angry child” in a person to set up dialogue with the “healthy adult” in order to heal the overcompensating, avoidance, or surrendering responses that perpetuate a given schema (Young, 2012b). From cognitive behavioural therapy (schema therapy’s other “parent”), there are therapeutic interventions to reframe the cognitive distortions: irrational thoughts are collected in journals/diaries, for example, which are then refuted through rational replacement thoughts.

Narrative

Narrative therapy assumes no single absolute reality, but that realities are constructed by individuals, families, and cultures, and then communicated through language. They are organised and maintained by stories. What is true for us may not be true for another person or even for ourselves at another point in time. In the narrative, social constructionist paradigm, there are no essential truths and we cannot know “reality”; we can only interpret experience. The narrative mind frame, unlike empirical work searching for facts, exhorts us to bring forth our novelist selves. This means that we can understand our client’s story from many perspectives. The work of narrative therapy is to elicit various experiences of the client’s whole self, determine which selves (parts of the client) are preferred in the new narrative, and then support the growth and development of those new selves and their accompanying stories (Ackerman, 2017; Archer & McCarthy, 2007). 

Thus, if a male client has experienced being emotionally stifled in the interest of becoming “manly”, he can be helped to understand how such definitions of masculinity are inherently constructed by society rather than being empirically true. He can be helped to, first, find “sparkling moments” when the issue of being emotionally constricted was not as much of a problem, and then to find ways to “grow” the self – and/or the moments – that were less restrained, more inclusive of perhaps a softer, more emotionally permissive self. In doing this, he is re-storying himself and re-constructing the “reality” that he and those around him will live about what constitutes appropriate masculinity. 

Solution-focused therapy

Like its narrative cousin, solution-focused therapy emanates from a post-modernist, social constructionist paradigm, meaning that it shares with narrative therapy the understanding that there is no such thing as an objective, absolute reality. Rather, reality is co-constructed, so the “truth” of a client’s life is negotiable within a social context; fixed, objective “truths” are unattainable. Clients’ lives have many truths (O’Connell, 2006). Just as narrative therapy tries to elicit the “sparkling moments” in which the problem wasn’t as much of a problem, so too solution-focused therapy enquires into what a miracle would look like if the problem were to be “fixed” or to go away; in fact, much of the therapy has this present or future focus. 

The therapist thus elicits the client’s preferred future. Suggestions for change are based on clients’ conception of their lives without their symptoms (i.e., the healthiest, most empowering vision of themselves and their lives that clients can generate). Changes the client makes will have a ripple effect, generating behaviour to change the whole system (Seligman, 2006; Archer & McCarthy, 2007). Thus a solution-focused intervention could see a male client generating a vision of himself as a fully expressive man living in a community which accepts both his “traditional” male side and also his more emotionally liberated self. The therapy would be likely to search for times and places when this had already occurred.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT)

Obviously in cases where it is the partner expressing angst and the man sees no problem in his flatter emotional demeanour, the therapies which may be more helpful are those which work with both partners to see how to accommodate both sets of needs and behaviours.

EFT is an empirically supported humanistic (couples) treatment that includes elements of experiential, person-centred, constructivist, and systems theory, but is firmly rooted in attachment theory. It is based on the concept that distress in intimate relationships is often related to deeply rooted fears of abandonment, as an individual’s emotional response to these fears may be harmful to relationship partners and put strain on a relationship. The insecurity may show up as partners asking questions such as, “Do you really love me?” “Am I important to you?” “Are you committed to our relationship?” “Can I trust you?” When intimate partners are not able to meet each other’s emotional needs, they may become stuck in negative patterns of interaction driven by ineffective attempts to get each other to understand their emotions and related needs. 

EFT reinforces positive bonds that already exist, and fosters the creation of a secure, loving bond between partners where there is not one. It does this through expanding and reorganising important emotional responses, which help to shift each partner’s position of interaction while initiating new cycles of interaction that are more beneficial for the relationship. In the non-judgmental environment of session, participants are able to contact and express deep emotions and experiences. In voicing their deepest concerns and conflicts without criticism, they are able to address them and move on to more collaborative, productive behaviours (GoodTherapy.org, 2018). 

Thus if the female partner is experiencing the despair of little emotional validation from a man who does not readily show emotion, he can be helped to see how, if he learns to do that in a way that is meaningful to her, it can benefit not only her but also the whole relationship. She can be assisted to recognise the ways in which he does show emotion – albeit “sideways”, such as Markway (2014) describes above – and to learn to accept how he is without criticism, asking directly at times for her needs to be met. EFT helps people learn to interact with their partners in more loving, responsive, and emotionally connected ways, which can result in a more secure attachment and – we say – greater freedom of emotional expression.

Summary

It’s easy to agree that men generally do not show as many emotions, or as intense of emotions, as their female counterparts. What we have seen to be more difficult is assessing whether a given man is pathological or not in the apparent emotional holding back. Without judging that, this article has demonstrated that there are several options for response if a man’s emotional expression seems greatly inhibited. One is to understand the ways in which men “convert” emotions: to other emotions, to other domains, or to their bodies. The other option is to encourage the man – either alone or with his frustrated partner – to attend therapeutically to the roots of the inhibition, which are likely to reside in insecure early attachments and/or socialisation against expression.

References

  1. Ackerman, C. (2017). 19 narrative therapy techniques, exercises, & interventions (+ PDF worksheets). Positive Psychology Program. Retrieved on 10 October, 2017, from: Website.     
  2. Archer, J., & McCarthy, C.J. (2007). Theories of counselling & psychotherapy: Contemporary applications. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc. 
  3. Assagioli, R. (1965). Psychosynthesis: A manual of principles and techniques. New York and Buenos Aires: Hobbs, Dorman & Company.
  4. Geist, M. (2013). Reflections on psychology, culture, and life: The Jung page. Cgjungpage.org. Retrieved on 22 July, 2019, from: Website.
  5. GoodTherapy. (2018). Emotionally focused therapy. Goodtherapy.org. Retrieved on 22 July, 2019, from: Website.
  6. Markway, B. (2014). How to crack the code of men’s feelings. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 17 July, 2019, from: Website.    
  7. O’Connell, B. (2006). Solution-focused therapy. In Feltham, C., & Horton, I., Eds. (2006). The SAGE handbook of counselling and psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications.
  8. Schexnayder, C. (2019). The man who couldn’t feel. Brain World. Retrieved on 17 July, 2019, from: Website.
  9. Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
  10. Sonoma.edu. (n.d.). Handout on Carl Gustav Jung. Sonoma University. Retrieved on 13 November, 2018, from: Website.
  11. Thompson, J. (2010). Normative male alexithymia. In search of fatherhood. Retrieved on 18 July, 2019, from: Website.
  12. Young, J.E. (2012a). Early maladaptive schemas. Schema therapy. Retrieved on 8 June, 2015, from: Website.    
  13. Young, J.E. (2012b). Common maladaptive coping responses. Schema therapy. Retrieved on 8 June, 2016, from: Website.    
  14. Young, J.E. (n.d.). Schema therapy: Conceptual model. Retrieved on 8 June, 2016, from:Website.